SOUTH AFRICA: State funds for student expansion

The number of university students in South Africa will grow by 53,000 to reach 837,000 in 2011 - and the government has allocated an additional R700 million (US$69 million) to accommodate the expansion - Minister of Finance Trevor Manuel announced in his 2009 budget speech this month. He also gave the student financial aid scheme a R330 million boost to enable more disadvantaged youngsters to secure university bursaries and loans.

The 2009-10 budget reveals a 10.8% increase in the government subsidy to higher education to R15.3 billion, a much-needed funding hike though it is lower than the 14% annual growth in overall education spending of the past three years.

"Government's contribution to public education remains our single largest investment, because we know that it is the key to reducing poverty and accelerating long term economic growth," Manuel stated. He also announced that funding was being provided for a new National Education Evaluation Unit.

Universities welcomed the increase in the higher education subsidy. Higher Education South Africa or HESA, the vice-chancellors' association, said in a statement that the additional R700 million recognised the accelerated growth taking place in the university sector.

However, said HESA deputy chair Professor Errol Tyobeka, for higher education to produce the human capital South Africa needed to grow and prosper, some universities "are in desperate need of funds to rebuild physical infrastructure while others need funding for research and high-tech equipment".

The vice-chancellors association is undertaking a review of higher education infrastructure to ascertain exactly what exists, where gaps are and what development the sector will need to cope with further expansion. Student numbers in South Africa have nearly doubled in the past 15 years, from 473,000 in 1993 to some 784,000 last year.

HESA described the R300 million boost for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, or NFSAS, as "welcome news not only for higher education institutions but for financially strapped students as well".

The scheme is expected to support some 130,000 disadvantaged students this year with the new and existing funding. Last year the NFSAS spend around R2 billion on bursaries and loans for more than 120,000 students. With further expansion of higher education on the cards, however, the need for financial aid will continue to outstrip its supply.

The NFSAS told University World News that its additional allocation would largely be used during the 2010 and 2011 academic years to fund general education studies for needy students. Some would be used in 2011 to provide bursaries for disabled students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

"This is in line with the role of NSFAS as an intervention geared to assist needy and disabled students," said spokesperson Bonny Feldman. She said variables in the scheme's distribution model could change over time so it was not possible to say exactly how additional funding would be distributed in coming years.

Also, the additional funds "do not reflect money for scarce skills funding," Feldman said, adding that the NFSAS would probably be notified of this money separately.

During a parliamentary debate this month, Minister of Education Naledi Pandor said the NSFAS allocation had grown from R578 million in 2004 to R1.3 billion last year "and a further R433 million was added from recovered funds to bring the NSFAS budget to over R1.8 billion." The total number of students supported by the scheme so far was 480,000.

Currently one in four undergraduate students has a NSFAS loan or bursary, said Pandor. Due to concern expressed about the scheme's impact, the Department of Education would conduct a review this year "to determine whether further innovative strategies are required to ensure that increased numbers of young people are supported.

"We are also working with universities to improve the success rate of students at universities and colleges. In the next three years over R3 billion will be invested in infrastructure improvement in higher education, in supporting improved teaching and residential facilities and in focusing on expanding access to scarce skills areas," Pandor told parliament.